Saturday, May 28, 2016

Letter to Walt Whitman, and Walt Whitman’s Reply


Following are companion entries from the first volume of my Songs and Letters, written and posted on consecutive days back in April 2005. I don’t pretend they are important in any way, or even very good; heartfelt, yes, and certainly revealing; but as to what they reveal, I will humbly, gratefully leave to you. Gone are the days wherein I would be embarrassed by something I’ve written. Ample are the times I might be embarrassed by present actions, if I only had the grace and sense.


Letter to Walt Whitman

Home again. You were right. After walking and riding across this country and looking at the land, the sky, and people, this funny little place has changed. The streets are still narrow, but they no longer seem bare and grim.

I’m in my mother’s kitchen. Her lilac is ruffled by the breeze, a pie is in the oven. The lines in her face are deeper than before. Or had I not noticed? When I told her about sitting at your bedside, she asked, “Is there no one looking after him?” I said you were fine, just tired. I recalled how you had made bread that very day, written a poem, and picked a mountain of greens. I described the firm, proud way you held your head, and how your grip tightened on my hand when you spoke. As sad and foolish as it seems, I didn’t tell the truth. But I know she understood.

Thank you for the poems. Now I know what you meant when you said they were written long ago. The words were on his ship when brave Odysseus sailed for home. During the course of his strange journey, they were lost a thousand times, then found again, like stars hiding behind clouds on a stormy night. But they did arrive, and like Odysseus, they were themselves, yet immeasurably altered, were virgin once again.

Before coming home, I visited my father’s grave. I looked down at where he lay, my collar turned against the chill. It is spring, you know, but winter too, a time of mud and blossom. A wagon rattled by. I didn’t know the driver, but he nodded just the same. We might have been friends in another time, or will be someday again. Then my father said, “Remember.” It was just like him.

I also thought of you, shivering beneath your blanket, how I stirred the fire, and saw faces in the coals. When I turned, your lips were moving, but your eyes were shut against the world. What poem were you dreaming then? What bright hammer were you swinging? The day before, you said, “Come again in summer. I’ll be stronger then.” I promised you I would, and before June is gone, I will.

When I told my mother of my plan, she said, “Why don’t you eat some? That’s a long time from now.” Then she filled my bowl with stew. I am eating still. She is humming at the stove. Like me, she would love you. But her world is here, on the path to her garden and the cemetery. She is a wise gray anchor, and will not forsake what she knows, while I, her lonesome, foolish son, go on believing everything.

April 14, 2005


Walt Whitman’s Reply

My dear friend, I am truly flattered by your concern. But I think you should spend less of your precious time worrying about me, and more of it trying to understand yourself. Your mother is right. It is better to know a familiar patch of earth with all of one’s heart and senses than to seek blindly for something that isn’t there. I am an old man, with an old body. The temple is in decay, and the restless spirit seeks another in which to pray. This should not concern you. Stay home and take care of your mother. Ignore my feeble summertime request. It was symbolic — a failed attempt to not break your heart or mine. Instead, go visit your father at the cemetery. Talk with him there. Go on believing what he says, go on believing everything. If you do, then I will walk joyfully down to my own sweet end, and gaze up in wonder at the trees and stars. They have sustained me all my life. It is time I returned the favor.

What bright hammer was I swinging? That is not the question. You hold the hammer now. Do not be afraid. I can hear it ringing. You are like a god standing at his forge, with powerful arms and chest and shoulders, mad and black with soot, with eyes that see the world and all the savage joy that is in it — the coursing rivers, the wild tribes of men, the snow-covered mountains and desolate valleys vibrant and teeming with prehistoric life. It is up to you to make your vision sing. Make the sky your bride, and the earth will be your pillow. Take cosmic pride in all you say and do. Fear not your own perfection, for you come by it rightfully. Do not listen to the ministers of failure, who promise redemption for their imagined sins. They are bitter and small, unequal to living, the miller’s dross. Instead, bathe them in your sunshine. It is what they least desire. Lift them up against their will, let them see their faces in your mirror.

Outside, the weather has turned cold again. Spring came, then frost blackened the tender growth. The vineyard is an orderly congregation of old men standing naked. Nature will clothe them a second time, but there will be no grapes this year. I might never again hold a grape upon my tongue, crush it between my teeth, and absorb its juice. When you walk the countryside in search of poems, ponder this strange truth. Let it penetrate your being, let its wild seed take root.

The world is yours, my friend. Seize it. Suck gladly at its breast. Be a field for our slowly ripening dreams. Always give your best. As your brother, as a man victorious yet cast asunder, I exhort you to stride through the cosmos, sowing your stars. It is an act befitting the god you are.

April 15, 2005


2 comments:

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Outstanding. Profound. Difficult.
This will take some time to digest.

William Michaelian said...

Gary, thanks for this initial response; thanks for giving it the time you already have.